What's a Raconteur?


A person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way; a storyteller; a narrator

The Spirit of the Staircase

published by Country Roads Magazine


The French have an expression that doesn’t quite translate into our language, but I’ll give it a shot. L’esprit d’escalier—literally, “the spirit of the staircase”—is that feeling, as you move inexorably away, that you’ve just conceived of the perfect thing to say to the person you’re leaving. You’ll never say it.

Olivia Savoie snatches at another language to describe her profession. “There’s a quote I love,” said the writer. “It’s an African proverb. ‘When an old man dies, a library burns.’”

The burning library, the unstoppable ascent—with Raconteur Story Writing Services, Savoie catches at wisps, distills them in ink, and puts them on the page. She’s a sort of biographer, specializing in the adventures you never wrote down yourself and might have forgotten without someone else’s prompting.

The gift of Raconteur is often given by sons and daughters to parents—and selfishly, it’s more a gift for that giver than anyone else. You can know a person for decades, grow up under their wing, and still there’s a lot you won’t learn until the right questions are asked. Shy clients will find themselves provoked into volubility as they sit down with Savoie for three-hour sessions over the course of several days. She wants to know everything: where you fished with your family, the names that filled out your dance card, the little steps you took as life leveled off between peaks or steadied after a fall. “What’s your earliest memory? I ask first. Tell me about your mom, tell me about the house you grew up in,” said Savoie. “I use a questionnaire to build the framework of their life, but every life is so different."

All conversations are recorded and worked over by Savoie in the ensuing four to six weeks. The manuscript she then produces is the writer’s best effort to leave herself out of the story entirely, not an easy feat for an extrovert with a confident voice of her own. But while parts of Savoie are propulsive (the initiative to quickly flip an undergraduate English degree into a full-fledged independent publishing business, for instance), she’s proudest of the patience she’s learned in her work. Listening closely to clients, she’s able to channel their voices into a natural narrative that moves chronologically from birth to thoughtful closing remarks. The full account, fleshed out with pictures, is printed as a book—or several copies of a book—to be given to friends and family who never knew all that you’d done and just what you felt about your life as it unfolded.

 “I’d been thinking about doing a book for some time,” said Doug Tharp, 84, who saw Savoie’s ad in an Orlando-area paper in mid-2017. (Savoie and her husband briefly lived in Florida but returned to Louisiana last year.) “My wife and I had been all over the place. I wanted to document it so our children would have some idea of the experiences we’ve had. I wanted to do it in time for a Christmas present last year.”

Tharp’s wife, Claudette Mitchell Tharp, always known to him as “Mitch,” suffers from dementia. The responsibility fell to Tharp to document their shared past. “I would have loved for her to participate,” said Tharp, who has lived with Mitch at The Villages Retirement Home since 2000, “but it’s all from my perspective. All those experiences from before our children were born—I’m the only one who knows what they are.”

Mitch & Doug’s Life Travels begins with Tharp’s childhood—the family’s first television, just barely the size of a basketball; teenage years working in his grandfather’s ice cream plant—before Tharp collides with Mitch at college and their lives go forth in tandem:

We would meet each other at the library to study. We went out to eat. Early on, I took her out and spoke of nothing but my family’s ice cream business and how my aunt had played small parts in Hollywood films. Mitch was annoyed with my bragging and later joked that I did everything to turn her off. We saw a lot of each other throughout college and shared similar interests. I was drawn to her pretty looks, sincerity, and intelligence.

Together, the Tharps move up and down the country and adopt four children. He serves in the navy, and after retirement they return to the road trips of their newlywed days. The book’s photos double, then triple when kids come along, and life doesn’t slow in later years. “I’m thinking of doing an addendum,” said Tharp, who presented his ecstatic children with the book in December 2017. Though Savoie works regularly with a graphic designer for Raconteur books, it was Tharp’s son, an industrial designer, who worked up the cover’s winsome artwork of stamps dotting brown packing paper to represent the family’s roaming.

For another book, Hello It’ly: The Story of Redellium Lindley Atnip, Savoie was challenged by Redellium Atnip’s granddaughter to compose a biography using only the deceased Atnip’s correspondence home to his mother and sister during his service in WWII. “There were a lot of things he witnessed. He was there when they assassinated Mussolini,” said Savoie, who noted a restraint in Atnip’s letters to his mother compared to the details he shared with his sister. “He didn’t want to tell his mom too much,” she said. “He shared a lot of childhood memories too. I’ve never met him, but I feel like I know him.”

Savoie’s craft takes many forms, from tribute books cobbling together other’s memories to stories with a tighter focus, like the true-crime memoir Gunfight at Frey Ranch. In June 1971, the Dixie Mafia swaggered up to Warren Frey’s door, impersonating law enforcement and hoping for an easy haul of the cash that country people would sooner keep on the property than in a bank. That night in Acadia Parish turned bloody, and though Frey protected his family and, with his father’s help, killed the gang’s leader, he did not speak of the searing events for over forty years.

The book, one of the few from Raconteur Story Writing Services to be available to the public, collects perspectives from Frey, who passed away in December 2018, his wife and three oldest children, and detective Kenneth Goss. “Mr. Frey’s children told me he was such a lighter person after [the book was published],” said Savoie. “For him to be able to talk about it, write it all down, and share it was very helpful.”

Experiences may happen to an individual, but joyful or terrible, they become a burden if remembered alone. “Even on a smaller scale, even for those people that nothing terribly traumatic has happened to,” added Savoie, “it’s cathartic to share your life story.”


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